In the history of Mute Records, David Baker and Simon Leonard are legends. From their early releases as alternative synthpop unit I Start Counting, through the weird sampleadelic techno hinterlands of Fortran 5 and onward through the retrofuturist electronics of Komputer, Baker and Leonard have been a consistent presence on the label’s roster since 1984.
The duo will perform a rare live date on Saturday 30 November at Electrowerkz in London as part of TEC006, curated by our friends at The Electricity Club and Cold War Night Life. Ahead of their return to the stage, we are reposting a 2011 Documentary Evidence interview with David Baker that’s been offline for years, and which was originally published to coincide with the release of their compilation album, Konnecting.
Simon Leonard and David Baker have been associated with Daniel Miller and Mute Records since 1984, releasing their first two albums – My Translucent Hands and Fused – on the label under the name I Start Counting. They would then move in a more dancefloor-oriented direction for their next project, Fortran 5, before, as Komputer, releasing some of the most spine-tinglingly original retro electronica. Selections from the duo’s various Mute releases have been compiled on Konnecting, released as part of Mute’s new An Introduction To series. This interview was conducted by email with Baker, but all answers were received in the third person.
The duo met at Middlesex University when Leonard overheard Baker singing one of his own songs, ‘Playboy Girl’. ‘This led to chats about pop music,’ recalls Baker, ‘and soon the two were DJing at the college disco and doing the pogo occasionally.’ On one occasion, a particular selection, ‘Incendiary Device’ by Johnny Moped, earned Leonard a bottle of Newcastle Brown ale in the mouth and several broken teeth. I’m not personally aware of any similar incidents on their own future tours, but I guess there’s still time.
‘The name I Start Counting came from a book by Audrey Erskine Lindop,’ writes Baker. Lindop’s novel would be turned into the 1969 film of the same name which starred a sixteen year old Jenny Agutter. Agutter’s portrayal of a fourteen year old with sexual fantasies toward her far older stepbrother earned the film a moderate level of controversy. ‘It also relates to the punk habit of introducing songs with “1, 2, 3,4”,’ Baker continues.
Despite their friendship, Baker and Leonard didn’t form I Start Counting until the demise of Leonard’s earlier music project, File Under Pop, who released a solitary single (‘Heathrow’) on the Rough Trade label in 1979. ‘Daniel Miller had his address on the sleeve of The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’ single,’ Baker remembers. ‘File Under Pop contacted Daniel and met up with him in a pub in Hampstead. Simon and he became friends and Daniel recorded some songs with them which never saw the light of day. One was called ‘Connect Until Connected’. Another was ‘Small Hut’.’
The dissolution of File Under Pop led to Leonard and Baker working together and recording demos which they passed to Miller; I Start Counting signed to Mute in 1984, going on to produce a small but significant body of work starting with the subdued joy of ‘Letters To A Friend’ and concluding with 1989’s ‘Million Headed Monster’.
As they began to record demos for what may have become the third I Start Counting album, a growing dancefloor influence led to forming Fortran 5. Fortran was even then a defunct programming language, now more or less as lost as vestigial regional English dialects. Over their first two exceptionally diverse albums, 1991’s Blues and 1993’s Bad Head Park, Fortran 5 found themselves collaborating with all manner of unexpected contributors to produce quirky club-friendly fodder. ‘Rod Slater was one of our collaborators on Bad Head Park,’ Baker tells me when I ask him about Fortran 5’s ‘fun’ dimension. ‘He was originally a member of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. He’s related to a friend of David’s.’
‘We did some work with Neil Arthur on his solo material, and he did some vocals for us in return,’ explains Baker of Arthur’s contribution to the standout ‘Persian Blues’ from Bad Head Park. ‘Thrash and Colin Faver were introduced to us through Mute. We wanted Derek Nimmo to do vocals on the Derek And The Dominos song ‘Layla’ [on Bad Head Park] as the follow up to Sid (James) singing Syd (Barrett) on our first LP, Blues, and he kindly obliged. Miranda Sex Garden were going to be our stage dancers but when the tour fell through we found out that they could also sing.’
I ask Baker about the leftfield move into electronica’s nether regions with Fortran 5’s third album, 1995’s Avocado Suite. ‘We were given permission to be as experimental as we liked, so we were,’ is Baker’s simple response. When I ask about the dreadful bathroom suite the pair are seen relaxing in, he tells me that it was Leonard’s bathroom in Muswell Hill. ‘It’s now in the London Bathroom Museum,’ he quips.
Reacting against the musical Emperor’s New Clothes that was Britpop and its still blander entrails, Leonard and Baker went back in time to electronic music’s pivotal point, namely a certain ground-breaking band from Düsseldorf for Komputer. ‘We got as close as we could to doing Kraftwerk cover versions on The World Of Tomorrow,’ says Baker, referring to the first of Komputer’s three albums, release by Mute in 1997. I wax lyrical about ‘Looking Down On London’, its almost folksy wistfulness for the city balanced out by the more icy, clinical electronic backdrop. When asked about the origins of that track, the response is typically understated. ‘We both lived on hills in London,’ says Baker. It makes complete sense when you think about it.
The World Of Tomorrow was followed by 2002’s Market Led and 2007’s Synthetik, before the duo mostly disappeared from view, returning with a celebrated live set at Mute’s Short Circuit festival in May 2011. Selections of their extensive tenure with the label were presented together in the August of that year as Konnecting, one of a brief series of artist compilations that saw the newly-independent Mute licensing tracks back from EMI.
I ask Baker what’s next for the duo following the release of Konnecting. ‘We have a live set ready to go,’ Baker tells me. ‘If someone will give us a gig,’ he adds. The prospect of a career-spanning series of concerts similar to their set at Short Circuit is an exciting prospect to say the least, so if there are any promoters reading this please, please, please make this happen.
Tickets for TEC006 can be purchased here.
Originally published 2011; edited 2019.
Interview: Mat Smith
(c) 2019 Documentary Evidence